Advocates of a global climate change agreement are urging that any international deal should recognize the emissions reduction plans of state and local governments around the world.
In speeches to a gathering of mostly French and American city leaders Friday, France’s ambassador for climate change, Laurence Tubiana; Peru’s environment minister, Manuel Pulgar-Vidal; and former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening (D) said local governments are on the front lines of facing the impacts of rising temperatures as well as scaling back emissions.
"The discussion cannot be limited to governments only," Tubiana said. She argued that the negotiations toward a new global deal — expected to be finalized in Paris in December — must look different than past agreements and bring in other contributions to the climate fight.
"We have to take a step forward to introduce more visibly … the contribution of non-state actors," Tubiana said. And she demanded of cities themselves, "we have to understand what your plans are, for 2025 for 2030. We have to understand where you want your city to be around 2030."
The comments came during a two-day forum on urban sustainability at the Embassy of France, designed to bring local French and American officials together to share ideas on practical measures — from protecting floodplains to financing solar roof projects to installing light-rail systems to curb transportation emissions.
But finding the right place to make those contributions count in the U.N. process has been a challenge. The final document after two weeks of negotiations at the December 2014 U.N. climate conference in Lima, Peru, called merely for "recognizing" that so-called subnational authorities and local communities "can catalyze and significantly enhance the impact of policy implementation by Parties [governments]."
Fears of undermining national autonomy
Keya Chatterjee, executive director of the U.S. Climate Action Network, acknowledged that many governments and civil society groups fear that governments doing insufficient work to cut emissions on a national level will use the achievements of local municipalities as a distraction.
But she argued that cities play a critical role in fighting climate change and called on local leaders to present a unified front to support an ambitious agreement in Paris.
Tubiana noted that some leaders also fear recognizing local governments will undermine national autonomy. She said the language in Lima was watered down in the face of those concerns.
"We didn’t win the battle totally. We began to do it in Paris, and we have to do the next step in Paris," she said.
Meanwhile, at a practical level, Glendening urged that local leaders put land-use changes at the forefront of their agendas. In the United States, in particular, he argued, poor development patterns are intimately linked to vulnerability.
"The best way to reduce the carbon emissions of the automobile is not to improve the car, after all, but to reduce the need to drive everywhere," he said. "In cities built for cars, you are forced to get into a 2,000-pound machine to drive 3 miles to buy a quart of milk."
Glendening slammed what he described as a U.S. mindset that defends sprawl as part of the "American dream" and said cities need to recognize that there is a new growing market demand "for people who prefer to age in place rather than move to Florida as it slowly sinks into the ocean."
With less than 10 months before diplomats meet to finalize a Paris deal, Peru’s Pulgar-Vidal said it is important to remember that the agreement is only the beginning of hard work.
"We are not going to fail. We are not going to repeat what we had suffered before in Copenhagen," he said, referring to a 2009 U.N. meeting that many had hoped would produce a new legally binding global climate treaty. Moreover, Copenhagen, Denmark, was widely seen then as the place where climate change would finally be solved.
"There is life after Paris," Pulgar-Vidal said. "It is not that in December something is going to explode. … [W]e are going to have a process after Paris. We are going to have an agreement that will lift the process."